Learning a Language Involves the Body, Not Just the Brain

A debut novel by British-Pakistani writer and translator.

Michael Erard in the European Review of Books: Language as self, language learning as magic, the mortifications of the flesh: these themes run through The Centre, a debut novel by British-Pakistani writer and translator Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi. Its narrator, Anisa, is a Pakistani translator of Urdu living in London, grappling with tensions of her immigrant identity and cosmopolitan desires. Yes, she had achieved her dream of moving to England but dislikes the cold and the myriad forms of casual racism she encounters. She complains that living outside of Pakistan has tainted her Urdu (her mother tongue) with Hindi words, and she resents the fact that she uses Urdu merely to translate Bollywood film subtitles — as opposed to the great literature she admires. To top it off, her other language, French, is mediocre. « Not like French-person French, » she complains to a friend.

One day, at a translation conference, she overhears a young white man speaking Mandarin, Russian and French. At first she resents him, especially after watching Chinese students marvel at his fluent Mandarin. « It’s always been like that, I thought, so much gratitude and admiration when a white person speaks a non-white language and only contempt and indignation for non-white people who don’t speak English. » But this resentment melts into amazement and then attraction. What’s the secret of Adam’s linguistic success? Neither aptitude nor a cosmopolitan upbringing, it turns out, but ten-day stints locked in at an invite-only language school in the countryside south of London, after which the visitor is released — now as fluent as a native speaker in their chosen language.

With his eleven languages, Adam works as a very high-end freelancer, Anisa learns, without any apparent personal or cultural friction alternating between working for « a Japanese aeronautical engineering company, a Farsi news agency, and an Italian research institute ». What does the Centre do with you during those ten days? Anisa demands to know. « I can’t explain how it works, » he says. « It’s kind of like … you just sponge [the language] in. » She wrangles an invite from him, and off she goes to the nuns.

More here.

VIDEO: ‘Acchcha’